News

Vale John (Jack) Hughes

Jon Condon, 16/07/2021

John Hughes, who had a profound influence on industrial relations reform across the Australian red meat processing over almost 40 years, passed away on Wednesday, aged 74.

Known to his inner circle close colleagues as Jack, Mr Hughes left behind a legacy of meat industry workplace reform unequalled by any other.

John Hughes

A larger than life, straight-talking character, he had a well-earned reputation for an exterior that was as ‘tough as nails’, but equally, he possessed an inner softness in mentoring young people with ability to progress through the industry.

His fingerprints remain on the modern employment agreements operating today in many of Australia’s largest meat processing plants.

An orphan, raised by the Legacy charity, John Hughes started work on the Dinmore kill floor at age 13. Over the years he worked his way into supervisory and management roles, culminating in his ascension to Human Resources Manager for AMH in 1986.

He was there at the formation of the Australia Meat Holdings business in 1986, where five meat companies – Elders, Smorgan, Tancred, FJ Walker and TA Fields/Metro – joined forces to create the merged AMH. The best talent was mustered from the four companies to create a force of 13 meat plants across two states, unrivalled in size, capacity and management talent, with Geoff Tancred as chairman.

With 13 smaller meat plants across two states, AMH embarked on a rationalisation strategy which involved shutting smaller and inefficient plants and investing in making plants in strategic locations bigger and more efficient. John was heavily committed to growing and reforming AMH, which included investing in capacity and efficiency in four super plants in Queensland: Dinmore, Townsville, Rockhampton and Beef City.

At the cornerstone of the strategy was industrial relations reform. It was clear the strategy was not for the faint-hearted, and John Hughes led the process with great skill, fortitude and courage.

Any change in the highly charged industrial era of the late 1980s/early 1990s was going to be very difficult. John devised a strategy to increase flexible working hours and consign the highly inefficient and unwieldy tally system to history. Unrest, strikes and countless Australian Industrial Relations Commission Hearings ensued.

Ultimately, after AMH shut its factories for some weeks to try to break the deadlock, a breakthrough occurred which saw the restrictive tally system abandoned and flexible working hours implemented. Productivity was improved by 30pc.

During this unsettling period John was issued with death threats and moved hotels every night.  Legend has it that he carried a gun for protection.

Eventually, through sheer tenacity and determination, reform was bought to the AMH business and its remaining plants, all to benefit from a much more competitive, flexible and sustainable workplace situation.

John’s ability to turn complex problems into innovative industry solutions also led him to the United States. Impressed by how effective he had been in the company’s Australian operations, US giant, ConAgra, which by this time owned AMH outright, head-hunted him to head the company’s IR division in its huge US processing operations. He remained in the US in a senior IR role with ConAgra for three or four years.

Later John became something of a ‘hired gun’ in Australian red meat industrial relations issues and negotiation, at different times working for, or consulting to many other successful meat companies including JBS, Teys, Smorgon, Nippon Meat Packers (now NH Foods) and Churchill.

Hands-on approach commanded respect

Never afraid to get his hands dirty, he could be found down on the slaughter floor or in the boning room, in the thick of the action. His hands-on approach and understanding of the tasks at hand on the floor, commanded great respect from the union movement and those he dealt with during wage and conditions negotiations over the years.

Additionally he designed and developed many boning and slaughtering aides including the highly successful H-bone puller, now a feature in almost all meat plants in the country.

John loved the meat industry and nights away with John would always be entertaining as he recited stories and anecdotes from the past – not always politically correct, but full of colour and excitement.

He was passionate about identifying talented people on the floor and giving them opportunities through formal training to become the next generation of leaders. A number of those are general managers and senior managers within large processing operations today.

20 years as MINTRAC chair

Beyond his direct IR work with major processors, John Hughes was one of the instigators of today’s MINTRAC meat industry’s training and skills development body established in 1993, spending 20 years as chairman.

In addition to developing worker skills, training provide by MINTRAC extended into fields like meat inspection, helping Australia gain and maintain export market access overseas.

To this day, the entire beef industry continues to benefit from the reform that was driven by the tough, competitive, tenacious, but fair John Hughes.

 

  • A funeral service will be held at 11.30am on 22 July at St Mary’s Church, Ipswich.

 

Editor’s note: Since this item was first published on Friday, former Australian Meat Industry Council national processor director Steve Martyn has written this detailed account of John Hughes’ life and achievements.

John Hughes – A Legacy That Should Not Be Forgotten

Last week John Hughes, an industry stalwart of the meat processing sector passed away aged 74.

For those in today’s industry, many would identify one of John’s great contributions was as Chairman for almost 20 years of MINTRAC, the industry training institution that he nurtured from its uncertain beginnings in 1993 to the central capability that it is today as one of the processing sectors key training platforms.

John, however, has left a far greater legacy that most would not fully appreciate, but is one that all sectors of today’s supply chain from livestock producer to exporter, benefit from every day – one that was only won over many years with commitment and dedication that involved hard fought and very costly legal, political and workplace battles  – it was the fight in the meat processing sector over industrial relations and tallies.

Tallies had been part of the processing sector since the 1930s as a form of incentive based payment. They had a substantial impact on profitability, abattoir size and throughput. Prohibited during WW2 they reappeared in the late 1950’s via provision for piecework schemes with Government approval. That approval process continued to evolve and by 1970, tally systems became established across the industry.

The essence of the argument against tallies was that they limited production and thereby economies of scale with the simple effect of substantially increasing unit labour costs.

The massive increase in beef exports to the US from the early 1960’s masked to some extent the costs and inefficiencies in the Australian processing sector from the tally system. By the 1980’s however it was apparent that the industry could not continue to be globally competitive unless substantive reform of workplace practices occurred that would allow greater economies of scale, greater efficiency and reduced unit costs.

John Hughes was then Human Resources Manager with Australia Meat Holdings. The AMH consortium established in 1986 was all about plant capacity utilisation which sought to reduce unit processing costs.

The tally system was a major constraint to that goal. AMH increasingly saw the need for industrial relations reform and John Hughes became the centre point for that objective, a process that ultimately took over a decade of conflict and disruption to see through to the end.

While there were some early skirmishes, round one appeared in earnest at Portland in South Australia in 1988. It began with mass retrenchments and quickly moved to a plant lockdown that divided the whole town of Portland with the town population all taking sides in what became a bitter and divisive dispute.

John remained the focal point in the action. He and AMH held firm on the need for change against strong opposition but ultimately prevailed after a very difficult 12 months. John then began to develop a strategy to take the efficiency gains achieved in Portland to the remaining plants in the AMH consortium Australia wide.

When US giant ConAgra took a stake in AMH in 1991, it gave them the extra funds to mount a major challenge to the long established inefficient and costly workplace practices in Australia.

That fight over many years in the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) ultimately cost AMH an estimated A$70 million at the time in plant disruptions and lost production. It took most of the decade to settle the issue but once reform was achieved penalty rates were removed and more flexible working hours and pay scales introduced.

The changes allowed AMH to close more marginal plants like Guyra and Portland while expanding others like Dinmore.

John was quoted in the IRC in 1999 advising that as a result of the reforms that “in some plants by agreement they are achieving production of up to 3 times maximum tally within 7.6 hours in boning and slicing and up to 1.75 times maximum tally in slaughtering.”

The productivity increases that ensued from the changes flowed to the rest of the processing sector and as a result the industry at large.

John was uniquely placed to head the case for industrial relations reform having worked on both sides of the debate and his unflinching commitment to bring change for everyone’s benefit was ultimately to the whole industry’s advantage.

It allowed the Australian processing sector to embrace modern workplace practices and more effectively compete in the expanding quality end of the export market in Asia and elsewhere.

All industry owes John a vote of thanks for establishing that platform from which much of today’s greater efficiencies have evolved.

Vale John Hughes – a legacy that should not be forgotten.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  1. Peter Sullivan, 20/07/2021

    I am so saddened by the news of Johns passing. We first meet at a industry meeting in 1979 and had been good friends ever since. Although we were competitors working for different meat companies and coming from different States, we became good mates. We worked together during the 1990’s were I watched his skills at first hand. There was no other person in the industry with his Knowledge, Experience, and Meat Works Intellect.

    I have many great memories of our time together. I will miss him very much.

    • John Salter, 20/07/2021

      I echo Peter Sullivan’s sentiments. I came into the industry in 1988 with a purely technical IR background and little knowledge of the meat processing industry. It was a baptism of fire, and lacking as I did any prior industry exposure, gaining credibility from Jack was not exactly a cakewalk. Significantly influenced by the indelible character traits of the likes of Jack, Ron Burdis, Brian Enders (who Jack called “the needle” due to his extraordinarily lithe stature) , Dick Fletcher, Ross Scholes Martin Iffland, Bill Patterson , Bob Heapermann and Neville Tame we set about representing meat employers throughout the nation in highly tumultous, litigous and acrimonious times. Jack had an incredible work ethic and appetite, seemingly relishing many highly publicised battles with the AMIEU over the necessary and inevitable reform , coming as it did consequent upon the courageous corporate decisions which created the formation of AMH in the mid 80’s. These were days when the Federal and State industrial commissions encountered a huge amount of meat industry work- Jack led from the front and would pull every devious trick in the book to place himself in the witness box during hearings, much to the despair of we advocates. Once there, Jack ignored virtually every question put to him, favouring lengthy delivery of sermons from the book of Jack to the venerable and often incredulous but highly entertained Commissioners – some of his exchanges with Joe Riordan, John Gough, Joe Caeser (or as Jack regularly addressed him “big Julie”), Ian Mc Kenzie, Justice Alan Boulton (“here come the judge” Jack would audibly mutter as he entered the hearing room) , Greg Harrison and former AMIC staff member Peter Lawson were quite simply unprecedented and unforgettable. John Maher a former life long public servant whose work experience was far from wordly, had particular difficulty understanding Jack, once calling me to his chambers to privately ask if there were others in the industry who spoke and behaved like Jack. Unquestionably, there is a certain uniqueness was my response.
      Despite the public aggro , when the dust finally settled a little in the early 90’s, Jack had established highly respectful and ultimately productive relationships within the AMIEU heirachy- people he and I regarded with professional (and indeed personal) respect such as Jack O’Toole, Tommy Hannan, Les Day, Ross Richardson, Lee Norris. Matt Juerneaux , Paul Jensen and Graham Smith. Other Union officials were not so fortunate- Jack once indicated to Jimmy Esplin (who as Jack often indicated got down to a slim 150kgs after a years isolation at Jenny Craig) that there existed within an unused container basking in the Qld sun on the Dinmore site, a huge amount of paper based time and wages records relative to an underpayment claim on behalf of numerous slicers, Esplin had been instructed to pursue. Whilst commenting on Jimmy’s legendary lack of desire when it came to any form of physical or intellectual effort, Jack indicated he was nevertheless more than welcome to access the inferno, although issuing caution that the copious records were in no particular order and certainly not alphabetical. When dragged into the Commission to explain the unreasonableness of his actions, Jack suggested to an astounded John Maher, that very few employers would be so generous as to offer free weight loss sauna facilities to Union officials.
      Jack’ significant relationship building skills played an integral part in the tri-partite formation of MINTRAC, the industry training and development body, which he very proudly chaired and championed until this year. Admirably assisted by the likes of Vicki Hardwick and Clive Richardson, he broke new ground for certainly himself and the industry at large , boldly placing women of the calibre of Marg Tayar and Jenny Kroonstuiver at the forefront of MINTRAC . Very recently, Jack had referred some IR consultancy work to me which I very reluctantly agreed to assist him with – my apprehension turned out to be misplaced as the assignment enabled me to recognise how much I missed his humour, tenacity and respect. Perhaps of greatest importance to me, during conversation he congratulated me on my past contribution to his beloved meat industry. Upon some reflection I reached a conclusion that was perhaps the ultimate accolade of my career. RIP mate – along with many many others, those in IR within the Australian meat industry honour and salute you.

      • Peter Sullivan, 21/07/2021

        John Salter: Remember the time you had John in the witness box before Comm Harrison. You asked him what steps did they follow in the “Disputes Procedure”. his reply was “Big ones right to the front gate”. John was the only one in the Court Room laughing. I thought Salter was going to faint.

        We all have many fond memories. He never ceased in making us laugh.

        • John Salter, 22/07/2021

          Indeed he did Peter- and the explanatory language in his response was a little more colourful than you recollect. On another occasion during an unfair dismissal case in Townsville, AMIEU advocate Lee Norris put to Jack that his actions to sack an aboriginal stockman may have unwittingly constituted racism. Expressing shock and horror at the implication, Jack immediately responded that he had never judged a man by the colour of his hide!!! now that we have had the ability to apply hindsight and reflection on his huge contribution, he was almost certainly correct in his assessment.
          A remarkable character, admirably honoured in today’s funeral service

  2. Blair Harrison, 19/07/2021

    I fondly remember working with John on some projects in NZ. He was a character, greatly acknowledged for his industry know-how and totally professional. Respect from the team at Silver Fern Farms.

  3. David Matthews, 17/07/2021

    Having worked with John (Jack) for in excess of 20 years , I’m proud that I got to work with him but more importantly getting to know him. He was a great mentor. Sad to see that the meat industry has lost one of its true great characters. He was hard, fair and sometimes just too soft ( but not a lot of people saw or knew this side of him). He saved the meat industry and made it the modern worldwide success it is today for the Australian cattle producers.

  4. mike curran, 17/07/2021

    Jack and myself had a 28 years together in the charter boat industry. During this time not one cross word was never uttered Jack was like a brother to me .Sincerely Mike Curran captain of his boat Marjorie j 111.

    Cheers Mike. Fond memories of the Marjorie J III operating out of Keppel Bay marina, near Rockhampton. I only became aware that it was John’s pride and joy in 2019 during a passing visit to the marina – Editor

  5. Karyn, 16/07/2021

    John was a great father in law and an even better grandfather to my twins. He is someone for them to look up to. This brilliant man will be missed incredibly.

  6. Michael J Nidd, 16/07/2021

    Great memories of John Hughes in the meat industry. Also a bloody handy golfer; fondly remember locking horns with him on New Zealand courses. A man who could expertly chip with putter.

  7. Trish, 16/07/2021

    I have an tremendous respect for John Hughes. He helped me through my career in the meat industry. He wasn’t offended when I asked him to leave the production area because he was wearing a beautiful big gold chain. Personal Hygiene policy was no jewellery allowed. He did what he was asked without any fuss. Total respect. RIP JH

  8. John Gunthorpe, 16/07/2021

    Thank you Jon for this reflection on John’s life. You capture it well. I was greatly saddened to hear of his passing. John was an important member of the AMH team and was responsible for introducing flexibility into the working conditions in our industry to the benefit of processors and employees alike.

    John was a good friend up until his passing. Jack Smorgon introduced us in 1986 when AMH was formed. His experience and innate understanding of human nature made him the perfect leader to reform the IR through his role at AMH. His membership of the IR Club ensured decisions were taken to move toward the flexible work agreements now a hallmark of our industry.

    John loved family and liked nothing better than going up to the Gulf hunting. He will be greatly missed and especially by me.

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